We all know which road is paved with good intentions. When promoting retirement saving, it's also true. (Photo: Getty)

There’s this thing called “reverse psychology.” It’s a verbal technique that gets someone to do the opposite of what you tell them. It’s an extremely successful strategy when dealing with rebellious people and adolescents (or am I being redundant?).

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I used it a lot as a kid when dealing with my peers. It worked, too. At least until I told them the secret behind my persuasive success.

Once they realized what I was doing, it became wholly ineffective. (That’s when, I can reveal all these decades later, I successfully employed what I called “reverse” reverse psychology.)

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While reverse psychology is generally aimed at a specific target, it can often ricochet and come back to hit the sender. Robert Cialdini discovered this long ago when the National Forest Service inadvertently told people it was OK to steal petrified wood – the exact opposite of the Service’s intention.

More recently, behavioral finance researchers discovered the same phenomenon takes place within the retirement savings environment (see, “A 401k Fiduciary Must Know Where Gamification Fails in Encouraging Retirement Savings,” FiduciaryNews.com, August 9, 2016).

If you’ve ever played a video game (or are an avid golf fan), you know what a leaderboard is. For those not familiar with the purpose of a leaderboard, it is to motivate players to move up in rank. For golfers, it means playing better at the next hole. For gamers, it means throwing another quarter in the slot and trying to get to the number one slot.

Leaderboards have been pretty good at influencing the behavior of their targets. It’s not reverse psychology. It’s more like a subliminal “play me” – a kind of peer pressure that keeps gnawing at you until you’re either in the number one position or fresh out of quarters.

It’s enough to drive you berserk. And I ought to know. The Lorelei of the leaderboard captured me in the early 1980s on a video game called “Berserk” (if that just spontaneously summoned the robotic voice within to repeat “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!” we are fellow travelers of the joystick kind).

Here’s the odd thing. While leaderboards have a proven success record when it commons to persuasion in most fields, they are a complete failure in the realm of retirement saving.

In fact, their effect not only fails to persuade people to save, it actually works as a deterrent when it comes to retirement saving. Research shows disclosing leaderboard-like information, in fact, dissuades people from saving more.

Why is this so?

In an example of inadvertent reverse psychology, showing people their place in the game of economic prowess turns out to be very depressing when your economic prowess doesn’t amount to much. Rather than play the game, these folks just pack up and go home – quite possibly to lose themselves playing endless hours of Grand Theft Auto.

I’ve often wondered if we could inspire greater savings rates by gamifying the 401k education system. I’ve even gone so far as working out game-like designs in my head.

Short of advocating some of the behavioral techniques empirical evidence has shown really do work, most of my thoughts along these lines have stayed within my cranial cavity.

Thank goodness.

Which gets us to those dire headlines.

Have you ever heard the expression “scared straight”? It’s when you try to scare someone into doing the right thing. I’m sure editors around the media world feel they’re employing this tactic whenever they come up with headlines like “Almost Half of Millennial Women Aren’t Saving for Retirement,” (MONEY, August 4, 2016) or “What Nest Egg? Two-Thirds of Americans Can’t Cover $1,000 Emergency,” (Fox Business, August 4, 2016).

Those headlines may scare the reader, but if you look closely at them, they also do something else. They’re telling the reader it’s OK to not save.

After all, half of millennial women and two-thirds of Americans can’t be wrong, can they? If they’re not saving – and presumably they’re living life exactly as they want to – what compelling reason is there for other people to change their lifestyle to save?

Reverse psychology. It pops up in the craziest of places.